Chris Koster at the Democrats 21st Century monthly meeting in Independence, March 25, 2008

Retail politics.

On Tuesday, March 25th I attended one of the regular monthly meetings of Democrats 21st Century, an activist political group in Independence. Senator Chris Koster (D-31), a candidate for Attorney General, was the evening’s featured speaker.

These folks in eastern Jackson County spend a lot of time manning phone banks, going door-to-door, and otherwise volunteering for Democratic Party candidates.

Chris Koster spoke for over half an hour and then took questions for another fifteen minutes:  

Senator Chris Koster (D-31) – Democrats 21st Century – Independence, Missouri – March 25, 2008

Thank you very much for the invitation to come out. And…you know, it’s a little awkward tonight. I have a sort of canned speech, but I would guess that more than fifty percent of the room has heard the canned speech more than twice [laughter]…

…Let me give you a few thoughts of what’s going on, what it’s like on the campaign trail, where the campaign is right now, and, you know, I’ll just meander around until I come to a point…

On being a prosecutor:

…I was the Cass County prosecutor. That’s where everyone in the room basically got to know me. I grew up on the St. Louis side. Came over here in the early 1990s, was at Blackwell Sanders for a couple years in the litigation department, then ran for Prosecuting Attorney of Cass County. And I didn’t think that I would do that job for a very long period of time. I thought, you know, maybe if the political thing takes root I could move quickly, but I ended up staying in Cass County for ten years because I loved the job.

I had a clock that looked almost exactly like that clock on the back of the wall in my office. And I bet that I did not look at that clock more than maybe three, or four, or five afternoons in ten years and say, “Today’s going slow.” The days never went slow. They were always fascinating days.

We tried…we basically went through three thousand cases a year for ten years, thirty thousand criminal cases in all during that period of time. You know I’ve probably got twenty homicide convictions, another thirty jury trials over that. And we had an extraordinary experience down there on a number of different levels.

First, you know, we had big cases, big trials dealing with the Kansas City metro crime situation and crime scene. John Robinson came through there, and those ten women who were brutally murdered, and then stored as trophies in the, in the fifty five gallon drums. I was there the morning that we discovered the bodies of the women in Raymore. I had twenty detectives with us that day. Paul Morrison and I worked with probably eight jurisdictions full of detectives. We had an investigation room that was maybe two and a half times the size of this room with long tables that were full of computers and television screens, and different telephones. The room was just lined with detectives and every morning we would, be both before the arrests were made and after the arrests were made, every morning we’d meet over there in the detective room. It was just like something you would see on “Law and Order”.

And we’d go in there, there’d be a morning briefing. You know the, the pictures of the women, one by one, were up on the walls and we had to go through the identification process. I remember one day two detectives came in with two large trash bags, you know like uh, oh a thirty, not a thirty gallon trash bag, even bigger than that. Like a yard type waste trash bag full of paper that had been shredded long ways. That wasn’t cross shredded, it was just shred long ways….these were documents that Robinson had shredded in a long style shredder and, you know, detectives took those…trash bags and pieced those documents back together [audience comment: “Oh my God”]. It was just, it, you talk about an incredible, incredibly tedious task.

But, at every, at every level of law enforcement, from local, very closely knit community type law enforcement up to a case that got international attention, the Robinson case, Cass County gave me the experience to really see every level of law enforcement that occurs in the state of Missouri, and to participate at the top of that from the smallest case to the absolute biggest case. And, and every one of those twen.., twenty homicides we got a conviction in. We never lost one of those cases. My jury, my felony jury trial record in Cass County was, is a, remains a perfect record, at this point and so, it was an extraordinary experience at that level…

On the Cass County Justice Center and personnel:

…It also brought me very close with the organized labor community. We built that incredible new justice center down in Cass County which remains, I don’t know how many of you, I assume every one of you has seen, at some point driven down Highway 71 and seen the Cass County Justice Center. There’s no other facility in the state of Missouri like it. None.

And, you know, I’m competing with, against two very able Democrats who have done good work down at the General Assembly and who’s work I admire. But, whether you’re in the Senate or the House, going in every day and just voting is different than going out and accomplishing things in a community as a local activist, as, as a local head of government. You know, we can all go down and just push the green button and the red button and, and, you know, do, you know, be in line with our party, or do what our conscience tells us. We all do that well. But, there’s a whole body of work that pre-dates my time in the Missouri Senate that I want this state of Missouri, particularly this, this side of the state that knows me personally, to consider. The ten years of prosecution, dealing with the worst…, the construction of that new courthouse. That thing is a forty million dollar state of the art criminal justice facility that brought Cass County out of, you know I don’t want to say the dark ages, but I’m going to say the dark ages. I mean we were operating out of an 1897 courthouse when I took over in 1994, an 1897 courthouse with the exception of putting in a new elevator had never been updated…

…And we asked them to invest and create a first class law enforcement structure that would be second to none in the state of Missouri, in one of the most conservative rural communities in the state. And we accomplished that in ten years. There is no other facility in the state of Missouri that looks like the Cass County Justice Center. You go talk to those Sheriff’s deputies, they are proud to work there. I mean, if they went to work for the FBI their working conditions, I promise you, would go down. What they, what the FBI has at Summit versus what is at Cass County is night and day.

But here’s, and here’s another element that is different about Cass County law enforcement that is an important consideration. When I took over in 1994 the Cass County Sheriff’s deputies were among the lowest paid Sheriff’s deputies in the state of Missouri. They made, on average, starting salary, seventeen thousand eight hundred dollars a year to begin, to start. That was the salary we paid them to risk their lives on behalf of the community. One of the promises I made, the reason I stayed for the last term, was I wanted to accomplish three things. I wanted to get Robinson put away, I wanted to build that justice center, and I wanted to make sure that I left these guys, not the lowest paid, but the highest paid. And even after we went out and created the Cass County Justice Center we went back to the people, built consensus, for a law enforcement tax not so different from the Jackson County tax that is specifically for law enforcement. And we turned those Sheriff’s deputies from the lowest paid deputies, seventeen thousand eight hundr
ed dollars a year start, to the highest paid deputies in the state of Missouri, thirty six thousand five hundred dollars a year to start. At the Cass County Sheriff’s office they remain to this day, the highest paid sheriff’s deputies in the state of Missouri. And the extraordinary attrition rates that we used to have down in Cass County, where a Sheriff’s deputy would come, get trained with us for eighteen  months, and run off to work for a police department someplace else and make twenty thirty percent more money has stopped. Now the police come to, now the police want to come and become Cass County deputies, because of the pay and the working conditions.

The reason I go through that story is because, you know, obviously I am one of the state’s newer Democrats, by my calculation maybe the second most recent Democrat in the state other than Chris Benjamin. But, the voting, the voting record and going and standing up for principles in Jefferson City was really just one part of this argument. There is a body of work that pre-dates it, and that is a record of real accomplishment that I hope that I have to offer to the Democratic Party, to take forward toward leadership in the future…

On prevailing wage:

…Let me talk about one other area of accomplishment, and that’s prevailing wage enforcement. Prevailing wage enforcement is probably the least prosecuted criminal violation in the state of Missouri. And people forget that the prevailing wage law is a criminal statute. It’s not a civil statute. It is with the rest of the criminal laws of the state of Missouri. But almost no prosecutor takes it seriously. And yet, union wages, as I’m sure that most of us agree in this room, are what built the middle class in this state and in this country. It is a bipartisan sin that prevailing wage is not enforced in this state. Democratic prosecutors ignore it. Republican prosecutors ignore it. They don’t like to talk about it, but it’s absolutely the case. And you ask anybody from the building trades and they’ll tell you that the problem is on both sides of the political aisle.

During my ten years in Cass County we had more prevailing wage convictions than any other prosecutor in the state of Missouri throughout the history of the prevailing wage law when it comes to putting people on the debarment list at the Secretary of State’s office. The debarment list, there are, when you actually get a full conviction under the prevailing wage law what happen is, that subcontractor or contractor cannot do business with any governmental entity in the state of Missouri, not city, not county, not state, for a period of a year. A corporation can go out of business when they get put on that list. If you don’t put a contractor on the debarment list you’ve done nothing in the prevailing wage area. Because if a contractor will normally violate the prevailing wage, let’s say he violates it ten times, and he, he makes an extra fifty grand a year, fifty thousand a job every time he violates it, he comes out, ten times fifty thousand, he comes out five hundred thousand dollars ahead. And if he’s only caught one time, and he’s just slapped on the knuckle and he has to pay that fifty thousand dollars back, cumulatively he’s still four hundred fifty thousand dollars ahead. The only way to get these guys and the only way to teach them that there’s a crime and a penalty that has to be paid is to put ’em on the debarment list and say, “No more government work for twelve months.” That can put ’em out of business. We have more corporations, more contractors on that debarment list than any prosecutor in Missouri history. There are four of us who have done really outstanding work in the area of prevailing wage enforcement. Claire McCaskill was one. Mike Reardon, everybody remember Mike Reardon from Clay County? Mike was a real great one in that, in this area and was passionate on the issue. Bob McCulloch over in St. Louis County has done great work. And us. We did it, we have the most on the debarment list. We did it in the smallest county. So we theoretically had the least, fewest opportunities to accomplish it. And I did it, as a Republican. I did it as a Republican, back during that period of time, because I was, whether people want to admit or not, I’ve always been passionate about these issues. We have always stood up for organized labor in Cass County, and we made Cass County a place where contractors knew that if they came within our borders and broke the prevailing wage law they were at risk of putting their business into bankruptcy.

That is what I want to accomplish throughout the entire state of Missouri. We changed the culture of construction in Cass County. An Attorney General that is passionate about these issues can change the culture of construction statewide. You have to be willing to go border to border and do the same type of passionate work that we did in Harrisonville throughout the state. And the contracting community, over a period of eighteen months, will wake up to the fact that this criminal law is not a discretionary law. That it is a real criminal law that an aggressive Attorney General is going to enforce…

On being a Democrat:

…Let me give you a couple of benchmarks. One interesting observation, I’m going to offer you this that I don’t usually give in public meetings, but this is sort of a small meeting, has to do with this notion that I can’t become a  Democrat. That, you know, some, some folks just like refuse to, to let me in. When I was a Republican they said, you know, everybody said, you know, he’s too Democrat to be, really, a Republican. And now I’m a Democrat and I’ve got this chorus of folks out there who say, “Eh, you know, he’s too Republican to be a Democrat. Can’t, we can’t let him..”  If you, there are thirty four of us on the Senate floor. So let’s have a mind experiment and take those thirty four and stretch ’em out in a straight line from leftmost to rightmost. Just put ’em in a straight line. And we’ll have each of us sit in various chairs. Now, over on the far right chair you’ve got two guys who are fighting for that chair. Delbert Scott is one of them and Matt Bartle is the other. And they’re going to elbow and claw each other to get that far right chair. And then you stretch the guys, the men and women, out and you come over to the far left chair and you’ve probably got two people who are fighting for the far left chair. And they’ll fully admit it. One would be Jolie [Justus], I would say. Jolie would want the far left chair and the other would be Joan Bray from University City. And both of them are passionate liberals, highly intelligent advocates, and both of them want that first chair. And everybody else in the Senate is somewhere in the middle.

So, for the first three years I was in there everybody who watched the Senate floor, without exception, unanimously, all the Capitol press corps would agree that I was the most liberal of the Republicans. Okay? So, there were, what do we have, twenty..twenty one, so right from the get go you go from the thirty fourth chair, right from day one, I’m sittin’ in the fourteenth chair. Okay? From right to left. Now we have to think about Victor Callahan. [laughter]  Now, okay, so now that puts me in the thirteenth chair. [laughter]  And then you’ve got Wes Shoemyer. Wes is, you know, a conservative Democrat from north, uh, east Missouri, put me in the twelfth chair. Frank Barnitz puts me in the eleventh chair. And then you get, there’s some subtle gradations; you’ve got Timmy Green and Harry Kennedy. So Harry Kennedy probably is like one chair to the left and Timmy and I are probably fighting for the tenth chair [laughter] [garbled] Somewhere in there. And so to all the folks who say, “Oh, you know, he’s too Republican to be a Democrat,” or “He’s too conservative,” what I’m saying is, just honestly, person to person, in this scenario is that if it stretches out for thirty four chairs and I’m sittin’ in the tenth chair to the left and everybody acknowledges it, for God’s sakes, I think yo
u can be a Democrat and sit in the tenth chair. And my record is, is long enough and people know that, that I think that argument is credible…

Three reasons:

…Why did I switch parties? Probably three reasons. As much as I, there are two big ones. The biggest one might be stem cell research. Um, when I walked in to the Missouri Senate I walked…first of all, when you’re a prosecutor you’re really not a Democrat or a Republican. I mean you run with a letter after your name but you apply the laws equally. So I never really had to exist in a partisan whirlwind until I got down to the Senate. Everybody knew that I was a centrist when I ran for office. Walked in, and as soon as I walked in, we hit the stem cell debate on the floor. Everybody who’s been watching my career, um, and who believed that there might be opportunities some day to advance said to me, “Stay away from this. You don’t want to touch this thing. If you touch it is, if you touch it as a Republican it could end you.” Couple of issues. One, it’s the Stowers Institute. Okay. Stowers Institute has a three and a half billion dollar endowment. Within ten years after Jim and Virginia make their final gifting to that, meaning after, which is a polite way of saying after they make their final gifting [laughter], uh, you know, this thing is going to be as much as a ten billion dollar endowment and will be the most well endowed medical research facility on the planet Earth. Um, Washington University has a five billion dollar endowment. It took them a hundred years to put it together. Stowers has a three billion dollar endowment, it’s been up and goin’ for a decade now, and it’s going to ten. And Washington University’s endowment is split between education and medicine and Stowers’ endowment is totally focused on stem cell research.

By the end of my lifetime Stowers Institute will be as important to this city as Washington University is to St. Louis. As..I think everybody in the room knows there’s a hundred acres that Stowers has under contract in the state. What everybody might not know in the room is that there already exists a plat map of what that hundred acres is gonna look like. And, there could be as many as ten facilities the size of the current Stowers Research Institute on that hundred acres. Ten research facilities, six hundred thousand square feet per research facility, state of the art, world class scientists coming to Kansas City and doing research that is recognized around the planet.

It was not an issue that you just backed away from.

I mean, if you’re in politics..I think anybody who’s worth their salt in politics is looking for some hill that’s worth dying on. Every hill’s not worth dying on, but if no hill is worth dying on then you should just go practice law. This was a hill worth dying on..

So Bartle and I had our day out there. It was an extraordinary experience, I remember it like it was yesterday. I worked my tail off preparing. I had an hour long presentation, that I probably spent forty hours working on and, I dunno, three months researching. One of the cool things was the Stowers Institute gave me access to the finest scientists in the world as I prepared my  floor speech. So I got to talk to people in London, Paris, Harvard. It was incredible. So Bartle and I do our thing. It goes on for about five hours and, and we won that year. That was 2005 and so, you know, the rest of the thing has rolled forward with Amendment 2 and all. But, you know what? The political handlers were right. It created a breech between myself and the Republican Party that never healed. And it was never going to heal. And, you know, they put a target on my head after that. The, the, the conservative wing of the party put a target on my head to make sure that no one who held these beliefs would advance. Okay, so that was reason number one. That I basically became fed up with that attitude. Because they are willing to take the Stowers Institute and send then to San Diego. As if though, somehow that enhances the, the morality of the planet. It just doesn’t. We should be proud to have them here. I bet that most of the people in this room are proud to have them here. And people make all the difference to keep them here…

Organized labor:

…Second reason. My great friendship with the organized labor community. You can, I’m sorry I’m running long, but were sort of on a roll here. You can advance in state government, and I didn’t realize this until I was down in Jefferson City, you can advance in state government to a point and sort of reach out to both sides of the world. You can be, you know, a friend of progressive business and economic development and a friend or organized labor. To a point. Once you go for the top five or six jobs in the state of Missouri, and Attorney General is unquestionably one of those, then you are in a world where the machine is bigger than the person. At some point you have to acknowledge that you’re not bigger than the machine. And the major corporations of the state of Missouri basically at some point come to you and say, “You’ve either got to chose between us or your friend.” And, I did. I chose my friends. Organized labor has always been extraordinarily loyal to me. I have always been extraordinarily loyal to them because I believe that they are the greatest middle class enhancement experiment ever devised in this country. And between fighting for the Enterprise Leasings of the world and fighting for the building and construction trades of the world I don’t have to tell you which choice I would make because you watched me make it in public. And in a very difficult way, I might add…

Public sector collective bargaining:

…The coup de grace with regard to organized labor was the decision on collective bargaining that the Supreme Court came down with in May, in the Independence School District case. The Supreme Court said that, uh, we all have, the public, the public sector has a right to collectively bargain, it’s actually rooted in the Constitution. As soon as that happened the Republicans launched in to begin to devise a way to pull it out of the Constitution. I knew that we would have to take a vote on this in the Senate floor. I knew that I would be the only person in that party, the majority party, to vote with organized labor on behalf of public, on behalf of public sector collective bargaining.

And if you’re a member of the Senate and you are hated by the far right, you are in favor of stem cell research, and you just voted for public sector collective bargaining? There’s a word for people like that. And it’s [laughter] Democrat. [laughter, applause]. And so, I basically acknowledged the reality that had been all around me, for a long time and, and I made the jump. And, it was very difficult. It took every ounce of courage. I really started to think about it about two weeks before session ended. I let most of the summer go and really kind of mulled it over before I made the decision. And then on August 1st I, I just did it. And frankly, I’ve never looked back, and I never really had to rethink it because when those types of decisions come it’s just, you know, it. I should have done it a long time ago. I would not find myself in this strange predicament. But, you know it took me a long time and it was really hard to do and I’m glad I did it. And, my, my, career in government will end with the party that I stand with now. It, I burned every bridge behind me, there’s no retreating [laughter], I can tell you. And I’m very pleased with the decisions that I’ve made and I think that I have something to offer the people in this room. And I think that I have something to offer the people in this state, in our party. The great challenge of our party right now is putting forth progressive ideas and dialoguing with the center enough that we can win victory. And I think that I can communicate, I think that I can put forth the, a set of policies that people in this room agree with, are advanced by, but also can reach into that cen
ter realm of Missourians and bring in rural voters, bring in, centrists who are moderates and don’t really affiliate, Independents, and create a majority that can, can win. And it, it’s difficult for us right now. The, we’ve got a strong Democratic wind at our back. We’ve a good chance of prevailing in the statewide elections. But, at the General Assembly level? The General Assembly level very much is influenced not by the big prevailing winds that will bring in a Barrack and a Jay Nixon, and, and a Claire McCaskill. The legislature is largely controlled by the business community and we as a party have got to work on that message of reaching out into the independent voters if we are going to get back the legislature and create another Democratic era in this state that lasts a long time. Because we’re now six years into the Republican era, and we’re gonna be in big trouble if we don’t turn, start to turn this ship in the next few years….

Questions on stem cells:

…So, that is a long winded speech, but it was not my canned speech [laughter]. And if anybody has any questions I’d be happy to respond to them.

Yes sir.

[Question] With Stowers and stem cells when, how’s that ever gonna end? When can we see an end to it? Because I know for a fact that Stowers is not gonna jack around much longer.[Koster] Um, hm. [Question] And they will move lock, stock, and barrel. [Koster] Right. [Question] And it’ll be gone. That’d be such a shame to lose that center plus that research [garbled].

[Koster] Right. Couple of elements. One is if the, the other side is able to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot and to try and undo Amendment 2 this November we have to prevail and win that battle. That’s number one. And, and that’s a critical hurdle. After that? We have to, second, elect Jay Nixon. And we have to elect Jay Nixon for two terms because that will give us a long term horizon where they, where Stowers will know, okay they’ve now have got a decade to kind of begin to work within the culture. And third, and this is really the hardest one, is we’ve got to, as Democrats, do a more effective job of taking back the center. And thereby taking back the legislature.

Paul LeVota does a terrific job. I have a lot of respect for Paul LeVota, I have, and I say this not just sort of as the kind of pap politicians say about one another, I say this as a guy who’s watched Paul work and develop consensus and watched him try and go back and, and occupy, you know, more than fifty percent of the battlefield. Because until we take back the legislature we can’t really give Stowers the long term security that, that they need. And, we can’t build, and this is sort of the one of the things about why I became a Democrat that I wanted to go back and talk about. It’s not just keeping Stowers legal. It’s, it’s which party is going to build the networks, between the business community, between the research community and the educational community at the university level. Which party is prepared to build those synergies? I can tell you that for the rest of my life it is not the Republican Party. Never is gonna happen. They will never integrate into the university structure and the research structure and build the full network of synergies. Only our party can accomplish that.

Thank you for putting up with a long winded speech. Did you have one…?

[Question] Robin Carnahan as Secretary of State has to evaluate the petitions. Any chance that the wording in that petition could be…? [Koster] That’s all been done. She gave it a heroic try. She did everything she could. But the courts have now spoken. It’s not a terrible wording, it’s not what we had hoped for…

On Sheriff’s deputies across the state:

…[Question] You mentioned the Cass County law enforcement, specifically the Sheriff’s Department. If you were Attorney General would you approve the other, take an active role, and, monetary at least, and building the rest of the Sheriffs’ departments in various counties in Missouri? Some of them are terribly understaffed and underpaid. [Koster] Oh goodness, yes. Actually, I have been working on that aggressively since 2006, was the first time, my second year in the Senate, we put together a bill that would add ten dollars to the service of process fees, create a pool of money that would lift the starting salary for all Sheriff’s deputies in the state of Missouri to twenty eight thousand dollars. [Question]That’s a start. [Koster] And we have, this, I think that this, I was in the Speaker’s House, in the House talking to the Speaker in his office this morning. We’ve gotten that bill through the Senate now, it’s over in the House and, I think the Speaker is warm to the bill, and is gonna give us a chance. And so, yah, I am passionate about this issue and it very much kind of fits under the umbrella of organized labor…

On “Missouri First”:

…To the gentleman from the UAW, we have hung the Missouri first language, as you and I have talked about, that gives tax credits to people who buy cars that are made right here in Missouri, by UAW hands. A tax credit preference that has been now, placed in at least one vehicle, we’re going to try and, in one bill, we’re going to try and get it in others as we go forward. So, yah, I mean, passionate work on these issues makes a difference in people’s lives…

On running for Attorney General and the 31st Senate District:

…[Question] I probably should know this, but are you termed out in your Senate seat this year? [Koster] I am not termed out. I am ending my term however. So, I’m at the end of my four year term, um, and you might ask why I am not running for reelection and am I leaving to run for Attorney General and that is because the last time the Attorney General’s office opened up was 1992 [laughter]. It’s been sixteen years I’ve been waiting for this opportunity [laughter]. And so when something like this happens, I’m forty three, you know you’ve got to take your swing when the pitch is over the plate.

[Question] Then do you know who will be running for your seat? [Koster] I have been helping a young man by the name of Chris Benjamin, who is a very hard working guy in his, an attorney, in his early thirties, from Cass County which is kind of the hub of the district, the largest population center.

There’s a primary in the Republican Party which is an advantage for us this time around. If a gentleman by the name of Rex Rector comes out of the Republican primary, and it’s Rex Rector against Chris Benjamin, I think the Democrats have a very good chance of holding that seat. [Question] What about David Pearce? [Koster] David Pearce is gonna be a tougher competitor in that race. You know, it’s gonna be close, because having a candidate from Cass County is meaningful, but if we’re pulling for somebody in the Republican primary, I’d pull for Rex Rector to win that [garbled]. And he might win it ’cause he’s gonna triangulate on stem cell, um, ’cause Pearce is sort of pro stem cell and Rector is rabidly against it…

On the Missouri Court Plan:

…[Question] What was your take on the attempt to change the appointment of the Superior Court judges? [Koster] Oh, I’m against that. I’m against that. The Missouri Court Plan has, as, as everybody knows, has become the model for court systems around the country. That’s the reason they call it the Missouri Court Plan. It was first instituted, it was first passed by the ABA in 1937. It was instituted in the state of Missouri in 1940 and then it spread around the country. The reason we went to the Missouri Court System nationally, which is a very non partisan way of choosing judges, was because we came out of a long era where the selection of judges was heavily politicized, which is exactly what the Republicans want to take us back to. That’s why we left it in 1940, and have had, you know, seventy years now of a system that has, has worked and has created fairness in the court system. I mean, the court system
is the only place where a little guy can take on a big guy. And, I can tell you from working in the legislature it’s not in the second branch of government that a little guy can take on the big guy. Big guys almost always win in the Capitol. And that’s a big problem. It’s, it’s incumbent upon all of us to preserve at least one environment where the little guy can take on a big guy.

[Question] Well now, will there be a vote on that issue, or? [Koster] I believe so. [Question] Oh my God. [Koster] Senator Charlie Shields from, uh, just north of the river is really driving the bill through. But my guess is that there are those of us who will filibuster it…

Vouchers, tax credits, and higher education funding, and the state budget:

[Question] What about this guy that’s pushing the voucher thing, I mean, funding all? [Koster] Right. The tax credit. Okay, now this is one where I am still open minded on this thing. It, first of all it’s not vouchers. It’s important to recognize that vouchers are unconstitutional in the state. So there is no possibility of vouchers. It’s, it’s a tax credit program that is being narrowed down for children with severe disabilities and autism. It looks like it’s going to be voted in the House first and I’m gonna watch the language that comes out of the House. We think that it might have as many as twenty five Democratic votes, depending on how the wording of the bill goes, which is more than one third of the Democratic Party that votes on it. I want to look at the language that comes over before I make a final decision on it. But I have to tell you that I am open minded. And here’s why. There’s some school districts that work in the state of Missouri. But, unquestionably, and we cannot turn our, a blind eye to the fact, that even though we are the defenders of the public school system, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that there’s some school districts that don’t. Okay, there are four hundred kids, four hundred young African American kids that will enter Vashon [sp] High School next September. Of those four hundred, four years later, two hundred and seventy of them will have dropped out. A hundred and thirty of them will graduate. Most of those hundred and thirty will disappear into the community…Approximately four of the four hundred will matriculate to a higher education…four year college. Four of the four hundred. St. Louis. It, it ain’t workin’ in St. Louis…

…We are in a budget situation in the state of Missouri that, I’m just going on so long, I really apologize, but I’m gonna make one more point…In 2001 general revenue to higher education in the state of Missouri was nine hundred and sixty million dollars. 2001. In 2008. We’re now in the 2008 budget cycle, general revenue to higher education in the state of Missouri is nine hundred and thirty six million dollars. A reduction of twenty four million dollars despite the fact that we’ve gone forward by seven years. We fell back in nominal terms, nominal dollar terms by twenty four million dollars. In real dollar terms, which mean you put, you pump a higher ed inflator through there which is about, I dunno, say eight percent, um, we are seven hundred and twenty five million dollars behind where we were in 2001 in higher education.

The reality is, I mean, we can pretend it’s otherwise, but Missouri is the 46th lowest taxing state in the country. We are never going to catch up to the high water mark that Bob Holden hit in 2001. It’s just never gonna happen. We can try. And we should try. But it’s never gonna happen. I mean, it’s, once you fall behind by a billion dollars in a twenty billion dollar budget, we can all pretend it can happen, but it can’t happen.

Let me give you one other statistic. Because this is so fascinating, hardly anybody really recognizes this about the state budget. We take in two hundred seventy million dollars more each year then we did the last year. So, know you start to understand the consequences of falling a billion dollars behind. We only take in two hundred seventy million dollars more this year then we did last year. Of that two hundred and seventy million dollars, two hundred and forty million is immediately taken up by mandates. That means inflation in pharmaceuticals, inflation in Medicaid, the heating costs that it keeps, that it takes to warm the Capitol during the winter. Two hundred and forty of the two hundred and seventy is immediately gone. That means in any given year we’ve got about thirty million dollars in discretionary money to change the course of history with. Now you understand the consequences of falling a billion dollars behind in just the higher education budget, much less the k-12 budget. When you’ve only got thirty million dollars how can we ever catch up in higher education? Of the thirty million dollars we only, this year in tax credits to wealthy corporations we will give away something like sixty million dollars. So every single penny that did not go to inflation went to big business. Every single penny of it. So, now the question is, if it is that hard to catch up, what do we do to educate an autistic six year old African American kid in the city of St. Louis, that has no money to improve that education system? Do we say to them, you know, as the Democratic Party, you know we can’t, we can’t touch the crystal vase because it’s a  perfect system and we can’t touch it. Or do we say, you know what, the realities here, we’ve got to begin to experiment and try and improve your world.

Okay, I’m done. Thanks [applause].

Chris Koster spent a few minutes after the meeting ended speaking individually with some of those in attendance.

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